Even the extensive pavement (totally without fuel), extensive clearcutting, and hazardous fuel reductions on public lands did not save this Safeway Store when the Camp Fire burned through Paradise, California. Photo George Wuerthner 

Recently Bend residents were treated to the wildfire documentary Elemental at the Tower Theater. The movie produced by Trip Jennings and Ralph Bloemer is a science-based film expose on wildfire ecology and policy.

The documentary’s central theme is that wildfires are primarily driven by climate/weather and that fuel treatments are ineffective in protecting communities. Home hardening, not logging, makes communities safe.

As Dr. Tim Ingalsbee of Fire Fighters United For Safety and Ethics (FUSE) says in the video, we need to change our entire paradigm toward wildfire. Instead of trying to suppress or prevent wildfires, we need to develop a new relationship with the blazes.

The film begins with terrifying videos of people evacuating from the Camp Fire that in 2018 overwhelmed Paradise, California. The fire, driven by high winds, devastated all firefighting efforts. The Camp Fire destroyed 19,000 structures and killed 87 people.

Even though clearcuts and hazardous fuel reductions surrounded the community and two previous wildfires that all “reduced fuels” none of these effectively stopped the blaze driven by 70-mile-per-hour winds. With only two roads in and out of the town, traffic jams developed as people abandoned cars that were on fire or had run out of gas.

The situation in Paradise could easily occur in Bend. With only six bridges across the Deschutes River, if residents in the West half of town were trying to evade a fast-moving fire, we could see a similar gridlock situation on our roads, with people running out of fuel and abandoning cars on bridges, blocking evacuation efforts.

Dr. Jack Cohen, who studied the intersection of fire and homes for the US Forest Service at the Missoula Fire Lab, was interviewed in the movie. Cohen’s research shows that fuel reductions more than 100 feet from a structure provide no additional protection.

In other words, the Forest Service policies of “fuel reductions” in the hinterland (as the Deschutes National Forest is doing) are a waste of money (since most timber sales lose money) and degrade forests by the removal of wood from the ecosystem.

For instance, one review study by Bradley et al. that looked at 1500 wildfires in dry ponderosa pine forests around the West found that the highest severity burns occurred in areas with “active forest management.”

Logging is not benign. It removes carbon from the forest, sedimentation from logging roads fouls streams, and in many cases, logging enhances fire spread by drying out sites and increasing wind penetration. Photo George Wuerthner 

This is important because logging/thinning is not benign. First, logging removes trees (wildlife habitat from the ecosystem). Logging roads are a significant source of sedimentation in streams and the spread of weeds. Finally, and surprisingly, despite numerous statements to the contrary, there is a great deal of scientific evidence that forest management enhances fire spread.

For example, the film showed mapping done by Los Padres Forest Watch, which showed the extensive logging within the Dixie Fire burn, California’s largest blaze in 2021 . Most of the area charred by the Dixie blaze had been heavily logged in the past.

Dixie Fire map showing past “vegetation management” i.e. logging (orange) within the fire perimeter. Map Bryant Baker.

However, we don’t have to go to California to see how “fuel treatments” fail under extreme fire weather conditions. Dr. Chris Dunn at Oregon State University was also featured in the video. He looked at the Holiday Farm Fire, which burned through large sections of private Industrial timberland along the McKenzie River drainage during Labor Day fires in 2020. He found that 70–100-mile hour winds drove flames through clearcuts and thinned stands. Even if thinning and burning were effective at modifying wildfire under moderate conditions, they generally fail under extreme fire conditions.

Dr. Tania Schoennagel of the U of Colorado at Boulder has looked at the effectiveness of active forest management (i.e., logging and thinning) and found that less than the majority of all wildfires never encounter a fuel treatment at all. Less than 1% of medicines are burned, and most of the time, even these treatment areas, under extreme fire weather conditions, make no difference.

This questions whether vegetation treatments make sense since they can only be effective if a fire encounters them.

Another OSU researcher, Dr. Bev Law, was featured in the film. Law’s research deals with carbon emissions. Her research shows that older trees store more carbon than younger trees. But even more surprising, her studies showed that burned and dead trees continue to store carbon for decades and centuries. Thus, the Forest Service policy of “salvage” timber-cutting sales after a blaze removes this carbon and continues global warming. Logging (active forest management) is the single most significant contributor to Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Oregon.

Even the idea that we should be trying to limit high-severity wildfires is challenged in the film. Wildlife biologist Maya Khosla talked about how much life is maintained and enhanced in severely burned forests. From the abundance of wildflowers thus pollinators to cavity-nesting birds like black-backed woodpeckers, bluebirds to nuthatches utilize high-severity burn areas.

Mount Hood glaciers grew during a cool, moist period during the 1950s-1980s. The same climate conditions mitigated fire spread and limited ignitions.  Photo George Wuerthner

Another poignant point in the film is that the increase in a wildfire in the last part of the 1900s and early 2000 is primarily a result of climate change and no fuels. During the 1940s-1980s, the West was cooler and moister than before or since. Indeed, glaciers were growing on Mount Hood during this period, and some scientists predicted we were entering a new Ice Age.

Ironically this was the same time when “fire suppression” was deemed “successful,” But in truth, Nature was successful in suppressing fires, not humans. And once the climate changed toward drought, higher temperatures, and more wind, fires could race across the landscape.

Milli Fire progression. The lighter colors are areas burned after the wind shifted directions pushing the fire back through previously burned and thinned areas and up into lava fields.

Anecdotal claims that active forest management is practical need to be scrutinized. For instance, proponents of logging in the Deschutes National Forest claim that thinning helped to save Sisters from the Milli Fire. But a careful reading of the daily fire progress reports shows that the wind changed directions and drove the fire away from Sisters and back on previously burned lands and up into Lava Fields. So, a change in the wind “saved” Sisters, not thinning.

The film’s take-home message is that climate/weather, not fuels, drive large wildfires. Just as we can’t prevent hurricanes or earthquakes, we can’t alter wildfire behavior under these extreme conditions.

As Jack Cohen said in the film, “wildfires are inevitable, but home destruction is not.” Instead of continuing to spend billions of dollars on forest management that degrades forest ecosystems, we should be spending far more preparing communities for surviving wildfires.

If the Elemental documentary comes to your community, it is worth viewing. Community and political leaders must see the film.

 

 

 

 

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

30 Responses to Elemental Wildfire Documentary Worth Viewing

  1. Jeff Hoffman says:

    Here’s an idea: The only ones on this planet who have any business killing trees are beavers. Trees are every bit as much Earthlings as any of us, and have just as much right to live. The only exception I’d make is where, because of unnatural human fire suppression or other human activities, forests are denser than they would be naturally. Then, thinning should be done back to natural levels. However, some people like George claim that the idea of unnaturally dense forests due to human fire suppression don’t exist, in which case revert to the idea and skip the exception. (I don’t know one way or the other whether human attempts at fire suppression have caused unnaturally dense forests.)

  2. Ron Kozan says:

    By George’s measure of things embrace death it to comes to everyone. Why do anything to extend your time. Why not let all that carbon be released by fire instead of being held as wood products?

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      I believe the argument is that letting fires burn and putting the resources into protecting, hardening, and cutting and clearing next to buildings will result less carbon being released overall and wildfires costing less overall than the current methods employed. It seems to me that this can be tested scientifically, and given the huge monetary and environmental costs and benefits at stake, it should vigorously tested beginning right now.

      • Ron Kozan says:

        What burns and how severe it burns all depends on too many factors for testing. As a fire fighter we understand why and when things burn. George’s argument always uses the most severe fires to make his case against logging. I’ll fight fire where there have been cows and logging every time over areas without either.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          You have a rather anti-nature position. I don’t understand what you’re doing on this website.

          • Ron Kozan says:

            Anti-nature???
            Where does most of this nations wildlife live?
            Why do you not enjoy a different point of view?

            • Jeff Hoffman says:

              Grazing cattle — especially in arid or semi-arid climates like the western U.S. — and killing trees are some of the most ecologically destructive things that humans do. If you support those activities, you are anti-nature.

              • Ron Kozan says:

                I find it humorous when people make blanket statements.
                I live in western Montana a valley full nature, a valley full of logging, ranching, farming, hunting, fishing and trappers.
                A valley full of grizzly sows with triplets, a wolf population density twice that of Yellowstone and all the activities you and George hate.
                And a short distance away lies the Bob Marshall wilderness with little to none of our wildlife populations.
                You would have to live in a cave to have a lifestyle that doesn’t support logging or cattle. You support those activities with your lifestyle, wether you admit it or not.

                • Jeff Hoffman says:

                  Instead of your meaningless anecdotes, how about addressing the severe harms caused by cattle grazing and logging? Not to mention that trees have as much right to live as people do, and that they are in fact important to this planet and its ecosystems, whereas humans are not.

                  As to lifestyles, absolutely no one in modern society can live ecologically properly, I get that. But we can all make an effort to get back to living as simply & naturally as possible, and to advocate for that. For example, I don’t eat beef, and I sold my car over 20 years ago. I consume as little as possible, though I realize that the house I live in was made using wood. You, on the other hand, advocate for the continuation of humans destroying the natural environment and killing the life there, using some story to pretend that you’re not doing so. (And BTW, wilderness areas allow cattle grazing, unfortunately.) The great harms caused by grazing and logging have been well-documented, so if you want to have a real discussion, address the harms found in those documents and we’ll go from there. Otherwise, I see no point here.

                  “[A]ll the activities you and George hate.” So again, why are you here?

              • Ron Kozan says:

                Another question for you to answer or not since you failed to answer the first two questions??

                Why do you consider humans not part of nature?
                Why do you consider humans different than any other animal?

                • Jeff Hoffman says:

                  In some very important ways, humans are radically different than any other animals. We can’t survive without technology, because we’re much slower and weaker than animals of similar size, to list just one example. No other animal causes extinctions, let alone the current mass extinction crisis that humans have caused, nor negatively affects the atmosphere, nor acidifies the oceans, nor destroys ecosystems.

                  If you can’t see these massive differences between humans and all other species, I don’t know what else to tell you.

              • Ron Kozan says:

                I’m here to learn and to educate.
                I’m not here pretending I don’t kill, in my world there is sustainable havest. Nothing lives without something else dying. Sadly you live your life having others do the dirty work so you can continue to live in your paved over world, typing on your computer in a nice climate controlled home. Who’s pretending?

                BTW there is no grazing leases in the Bob Marshall.

                Severe harms caused by grazing includes include many species other than cattle. Has nothing to do with the species and everything to do with management. Sadly most people lack the knowledge to understand that fact.

        • Ron Kozan says:

          Interesting that you advocate for dead tress by fire but against humans killing trees.
          You do know that natural fires cause more stream sedimentation than human logging.

          Also interesting is the idea that instead of killing some trees in order to live where I live. I should live where almost all native life has been killed like where you live.

          • Hiker says:

            When an area is logged it’s not just the trees that die, entire ecosystems are ruined and the place is MORE prone to fires because of drying. After a fire many plants and animals immediately use that area; dead standing snags are important for lots of reasons. I’ve seen Elk eat bark off burned Lodgepole Pine in Yellowstone for three years after a fire. Woodpeckers thrive on building cavity nests in snags. When a snag falls, Carpenter ants make their homes in the logs and bears will rip up the logs to eat the ants. Etc.

            • Ron Kozan says:

              Another blaket staement.
              Entire ecosystems are ruined…you make me laugh.
              During and after logging many plants and animals immediatly use that area.Immediatly after a fire the soil is too hot to walk on and in many cases the soil has been turned into glass.
              How did my blanket staement rate?

              • Hiker says:

                Not gonna lie, they are pure crap. Weeds and pigeons may use your wonderful log pile waste heap, not the wildlife.
                BTW, nothing I wrote is a blanket statement, I witnessed it.
                I’ve walked through fire areas during the fire, still here.

                • Ron Kozan says:

                  Blanket statement…The belief that all logging is the same…Every logging site I’ve hunted in the last 30 years has left snags. Every wildfire I have faught in the last 30 years has been easier to fight where logging has occurred than where there has been no logging.

                  I see you’ve never seen a rabbit, rodent or squirrel use a log pile, but then again you think elk eating bark off dead trees is health.

                • Hiker says:

                  This is fun. The ‘my blanket statement is better than yours’ game.
                  In case you hadn’t noticed the climate has changed. All your “experience” now counts for nothing. The science, on the other hand, is overwhelming; places that are logged are damaged, places that burn naturally are healthy. Instead of being caught up in the death of trees, worry about the death of their ecosystems.

                • Hiker says:

                  Well don’t blame me when your place goes up in flames.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      For wildlife and wilderness advocates, and in fact for anyone who advocates for life on Earth — ALL life, not human life — the issue is that it’s not OK to kill trees in order to prevent fires from spreading.

      Natural wildfires are not only natural, they are necessary aspects of these ecosystems. If you can’t handle that, I suggest you move somewhere the ecosystems don’t experience natural wildfires with any regularity.

      And BTW, the vast majority of forest fires nowadays are set by humans. Infinitely better to prevent that then to kill trees or to destroy forests by logging.

      • Ron Kozan says:

        Interesting that a tree kill by fire is OK but a tree killed by humans is bad.

        Interesting that you think I should leave an area full of wildlife and wildfires. Move to an area with little to no wildlife because you think you manage wildlife and the ecosystem better than me.

        • Hiker says:

          Because a tree killed by fire is not done being part of the ecosystem and one that’s logged is. Perhaps you don’t believe that and that’s ok.
          Also, I didn’t see anyone telling you to move. Where we live has consequences, including being burnt over.
          And last I checked this is the U.S.A., freedom is here. We can discuss things freely, you are free to live where you want, we can call for less logging. That’s our right as Americans.

          • Jeff Hoffman says:

            What I said, not necessarily to Ron, was that anyone who’s so afraid of natural wildfire that they want to kill trees and otherwise destroy the natural environment in an effort to prevent them, should move.

            • Hiker says:

              Sorry didn’t see that. I agree and that’s one reason I don’t live in the mountains of Colorado. Too many friends and family evacuating every year from fires and floods. It’s a choice. If I grew up in Florida, for instance, I would have left long ago.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          Not interesting, you simply don’t understand because your anthropocentric human supremacist attitude doesn’t allow you to. Saying that because natural wildfires kill SOME trees that means it’s OK for humans to kill them is as childish as saying that because someone else did something wrong, you should be able to do it too.

          Humans killing trees is not a natural process, and the trees didn’t evolve having to deal with that. Furthermore, those trees have every bit as much right to live as you do. That in a nutshell is what’s wrong with your position on this.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          And it’s not about whether you or I manages ecosystems. Our position is that no human should manage them, because nature does it infinitely better. To think otherwise you have to have massive hubris caused by a very bloated ego.

          • Ron Kozan says:

            You believe that some supreme all seeing powerful force controls all ecosystems. OK
            What is the record of this all powerful force?
            5 mass extinction and 99% of all species that have gone extinct.
            Your all powerful Nature has a real track record.
            You do know it has been forecasted that humans only have about 7.7 million years left before we go extinct?

  3. TED MACKECHNIE says:

    Both the movie and George’s summary present the clearest argument yet for the importance of hardening the towns. Hardening means building fireproof structures and installing automatic exterior watering systems…watering that comes on to dampen things before the flames or embers arrive. Spend the money “wetting the town” instead thinning the forest.

  4. Ron Kozan says:

    Anti-nature???
    Where does most of this nations wildlife live?
    Why do you not enjoy a different point of view?

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